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Strange Foods With Another Bald, Fat Guy

 

I'm always curious about what kind of strange things people eat in other countries, and jump at the chance to try new delicacies. Vietnam rises to the occasion and is a cornucopia of the bizarre and still wriggling. 

Everybody knows that dog is a favorite of the North. It's a winter food, believed to keep you extraordinarily warm on cold nights. I've eaten dog in a variety of ways, including grilled, stuffed in spring rolls, stir fried, and added to soups. I find that dog meat has a gritty texture and smells like a mixture of wet dog hair and hints of its own feces. I can always smell a dog restaurant when I drive by them in Phan Thiet, where I'm told they are popular with the Catholic community around Christmas time (although I haven't confirmed this). The sad truth is, most dogs are stolen and were once family pets. I first tried dog in Hanoi, where you can find German shepherds in tiny mesh cages in the back of restaurants, ready to be slowly bludgeoned to death over the course of an hour, in order to tenderize their meat. When dog is "in season" their yelps can be heard across many neighborhoods. Of anything I've eaten in Vietnam, I probably regret eating dog the most.

Snakes are a common novelty food, and although their meat is relished, it's really their blood, bile and still-beating-heart which are most prized, to be mixed with wine and downed in one shot. I've always passed on the wine, but I've eaten the flesh on several occasions. A friend caught a cobra outside his front door and shared it with me on evening. There is actually very little meat on a cobra, so the skin is eaten as well. I was surprised that fried, it actually tasted a bit like custard. In the village of Le Mat, famous for it's snake restaurants, I tried it in a number of ways, including in soup (both the taste and texture was like crab meat) and spring rolls (tastes like chicken).

While a culinary visit to Le Mat has been recommended by many guidebooks, I actually discourage people from visiting because the village has become an outlet for the bush meat trade. During the height of the SARS epidemic in 2003 there were cages occupied by live civet cat (the carrier of the virus). I also saw wine jars there stuffed with the intact corpses of monkeys, gibbons, eagles, monitor lizards and even a bear cub. These animals are placed in the jars still alive and quickly drowned, so as to capture and infuse their life force and essence into the wine. 

Lizards and frogs (best grilled) are standard fare in Phan Thiet. I'd never tried frog until I came to Vietnam, but now I like it a lot. It's a shame other cultures only eat the legs, as the rest of the body has deliciously tender meat as well. If you ever order a chicken dish in Vietnam, pay attention to the bones. Since chicken is one of the most expensive meats in the market, the cooks often do a bait and switch. The long leg bones with ball sockets on the end are a dead give-away that your "chicken" might not be the kind with feathers. During rainy season my friends all catch toads and boil them up too. They merely cut out the stomach organ and eat the rest-skin, guts and all. I managed a single nibble of a toad's thigh once, before I gagged. 

I watched my friends eat truog vit lon for many months before I found the courage to try it myself. These fertilized duck eggs allowed to partially develop and then they are hard-boiled. You can immediately see a difference in color from the outside-the shells are more opaque, with a slight bluish green hue. Crack the top off, suck out the juice, and then spoon out the colorful morsels with pinches of pickled carrots, garlic, radish, turnip, some mint leaves, and a dash of salt and pepper. The head, feet and some semblance of feathers may be partially formed, but they all have a soft consistency indistinguishable from the rest of the yolk. The remaining egg white tends to be hard and rubbery. While the taste is not altogether terrible, I find it does have a hint of that "I'm something that's not supposed to be eaten" flavor common to intestines, lungs, kidneys and other cuts of meat I tend to shy away from on party platters. 

I've lived much of my life near the ocean, but I'd never seen some of the critters commonly eaten in Vietnam before, even in my zoology textbooks. 

A friend dropped me off at his brother's house far in the countryside while he went to run some errands. It wasn't long before the lady of the house brought out a large platter of steamed crabs and other bottom dwellers, while her husband pulled out a crate of beers. He went next door and brought a few neighbors over as well, to have a little party in honor of my visit. I'd learned to really like crabs lately, and Phan Thiet had no shortage of great crab dishes. These however, were not the standard fare. It was a motley pile of creatures dredged from under the rocks and piles of dead things that they undoubtedly fed upon deep in the bay. They were a menagerie of hairy, slimy, frightening beasts from the next Star Wars movie, covered in seaweed, barnacles and anemones. Some were round like softballs and others long and spindly, more like centipedes; but none were forms I recognized. I was rather concerned about eating the organisms that lay dead before me, but like any good guest, I felt politely obligated to eat whatever I was served by my host. After all, these people lived in a thatched hut and made less money in an entire year than I did in a single month. I couldn't bear to offend them when they were being so generous, despite their extreme poverty.

Experience had taught me that in Vietnam food nearly always tastes better than it looks. Not so on this occasion. The crabs tasted of every bit of scum and grime they wallowed in at the bottom of the bay. The greenish juices that poured from the first carcass smelled utterly putrid. I had to fight the gag reflex before the meat even touched my tongue. I watched my host gleefully suck the innards from a crab's spiny carapace, black fluid running down his chin. 

I prayed my friend would return and take me away at any minute, but as always happens in these situations, he didn't return until every last creature had been cracked open and their cadaverous shells sucked clean. When he finally did come through the door and saw the empty shells on the platter, he reached over and smacked my upside the head. 

"You very stupid!" he scolded, "I never eat that! Tomorrow you have diarrhea very bad. You very stupid!

I learned the hard way, late that night in the bushes with my pants around my ankles, that sometimes it is indeed socially acceptable in Vietnam to decline food from your host. Just because something might be eaten in a culture, doesn't mean that it is common or even wise to do so.

Published on 11/16/07.

 

 

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